The battle over whether local municipalities should have the power to seize private property may be winding down in Illinois.
Last week, the state House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would overhaul the state's eminent domain law by setting higher standards for municipalities that want to seize land for private redevelopment, such as shopping malls.
It also would require governments to increase the compensation they offer to property owners when land is taken for both private and public use, including roads and schools.
"What we've created is an eminent domain act that is one complete statute . . . where people can go and understand what their rights are," said state Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest), who wrote the first draft of the bill. The measure passed 85-6 on April 18.
"What we have today is just case law, which is scattershot and depends on who your attorney is and what you can afford," Garrett added. "My goal was a law that people understood, one with transparency, and not making the process about who can hire the best lawyer."
Garrett said she introduced the bill after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that broadened the power of local governments to take property and transfer it to private developers for economic growth. That decision allowed states to determine their own eminent domain statutes, and many states have restricted their laws in the aftermath, she said.
Illinois' bill will go back to the state Senate, which last month approved a more stringent version. The Senate reconvenes May 2, and if it concurs with the House version, the bill will be sent to the governor.
Despite its passage in the General Assembly, the bill was met with strong opposition from local municipalities, which say it poses a threat to their urban development plans. A number of cities, including Chicago, successfully lobbied to amend the bill.
The result is a measure that's "livable," said Roger Huebner, general counsel for the Illinois Municipal League, which originally opposed the legislation.
The revised bill sets higher standards for governments seizing private property. The government must prove the property is essential for a successful development project and provide a substantive renewal plan for the area.
In addition, when governments seize property for either private or public use, they are required to cover homeowners' relocation costs and, in some cases, their attorney's fees if the owners choose to fight the seizure.
Huebner said that the House amended the bill to ensure that development plans already underway such as the $15 billion expansion of O'Hare International Airport are not affected if the measure is passed.
"We also wanted to make sure those additional costs for attorney's fees and relocation are reasonable," he added.
Garrett said she agreed with the changes. "We did not want to deter economic development, so the difficult thing about this [bill] is striking that balance between economic needs and property owners' rights," she said.
But the compromise has not swayed all local officials.
"If the [city] administration had advised me to, I would have opposed it," said Chicago Ald. Bernard Stone (D-50th). "But unfortunately, I was never advised until the bill went before the Senate. Now I'm afraid it's too late."
Garrett praised the bill for being "extremely fair" and said she does not expect any additional opposition to it.
"States are grappling with how to handle this," Garrett said. "Many are going from one extreme to the other, and I think what we've done is strike a balance. I can honestly say that what we've done could be model legislation."